Why do young people go to one university rather than another? And when they go there, how does it change them? If two people with the same attainment and the same interests proceed to higher education, and one of them goes to, say, Oxford, and the other to London Metropolitan University, will they exit from the system still the same? And if not, what determines the difference?
These questions are important because the outcomes of higher education are not just educational, they are clearly also social. People network at university, and the groups they associate with will often determine the further course of their lives and careers. Therefore it matters not just whether they meet people with the same intellectual and professional interests and intentions, but also what kind of socio-economic associations they form or are confirmed in.
Recently a student newspaper in Duke University, the prominent private research-intensive university based in Durham, North Carolina, ran a piece describing the impact that the university has had on one of its students. It quotes the student as saying that ‘he can no longer relate to any of his friends from high school’, all of whom, we learn, have unlike him gone to local state institutions. He still tries to socialise with them when he returns home, but conversation has become difficult because their experience is different from his. ‘I think it’s just really hard for me’, he muses, ‘ to relate to people who, you know, couldn’t get into a [university] like mine’.
OK, so what is that difference, then? Is it the more intellectual discourse available at the resource-rich Duke University? Is it based on the quality of the faculty and the richness of the pedagogy? Apparently not. Rather, in Duke his conversations with his classy college friends tend to revolve around ‘discussions of greek rankings, sharing of sexual conquests and wordless exchanges of loud bodily functions.’
What we are therefore left with is what we probably already knew: that there is a higher education apartheid based around social standing, which merges with claimed intellectual superiority backed by more generous funding. And these are the continuing building blocks of professional and social elites, and ultimately social exclusion.
Almost everybody these days supports and welcomes higher education diversity, but often there is a subtext about social hierarchies. We will never be in a system in which all institutions are equal, nor should we want to be. But we should look again at how diversity is often just a facilitator for social ambition, in which some institutions are prized and others are avoided by those wanting to get to the top of the tree. It is time for the system to say goodbye to all that, and goodbye to the assumption that institutional age delivers a more excellent intellectual performance, and goodbye to the belief that it is OK to pursue social ambition through one’s choice of higher education institution. It is time to say a genuine hello to real diversity, of different approaches but equal ambition and equal opportunities for world class leadership.